Monday, September 5, 2011

The Hurdles

(Published May 2010)

Nasty night.

Fifty degrees, a north breeze, light rain. Lightning flashes in the southwest sky. Wednesdays in May don't come much worse.

William Peters-Vili sheds two pairs of sweats, a hoodie and a Benson High jacket. He finds lane 8 on the track.

District meet. 300-meter hurdles. He's seeded eighth. He hasn't placed in the top four all year.

If he doesn't tonight, he won't wear a Benson uniform again.

He is the prom king afraid to dance. The three-sport athlete without press clippings. Football coaches call him the “heartbeat.” Track coaches call him “the handyman.”

A year ago after the season, William sent his track coach an e-mail thanking him for his time.

Now Mark Meier, a Benson assistant, is standing by the starting line, too nervous to be still. He is 43. He has coached state champions.

Tomorrow, Meier will craft his own e-mail to his own high school coach. After 14 years holding a stopwatch, he'll write: I saw a race yesterday, and I think I finally understand why I do this.

That's for later. Right now, standing in the rain, Coach knows only the qualifying times.

“On paper, he has no chance.”

The starter's gun fires, and William takes off, gliding over the first three hurdles. Best start all year. Now the turn, and here's where he struggles. Stutter-step over hurdle 4. Shoot.

William is off stride. He bangs hurdle 5, opening that quarter-size scab on his left knee. He nearly tumbles to the track.

Coach watches from the backstretch. He figures it's over.

Beautiful night.

Seventy degrees, not a breath of wind, the sun sinks fast in the southwest sky. Tuesdays in September don't get much sweeter.

They are brothers, William and Wilson, separated by one year. They each have bronze skin and good grades and a love for sports.

Big brother William is 6-foot-1 with a thicker goatee.

Little brother Wilson is 6-4 with a quicker wit.

They had finished football practice and come home. The phone rang. It's mom. She needs a ride home from work.

“Wilson, do you want to go with me?”

First Wilson said no. He was cleaning his room. Then he changed his mind.

So they jumped in the Sebring and pulled onto Bedford Avenue.

It was spirit week at Benson High three nights before homecoming.

Wilson, a junior, had gone to school Tuesday in old-man glasses, no lenses, white tape wrapped around the black frames. Nerd Day.

William, a senior, didn't dress up. “I'm too smooth for that.”

They'd always been tight. They'd always been different.

Little brother danced without fear. He struck up conversations with strangers. He used cell phones so much, he broke them. He set up a Facebook account for big brother. “That sounds dumb,” William said.

Little brother bet classmates he'd catch a touchdown pass, then he paid his debt in Skittles.

Every practice, the team members huddled at midfield, raised their arms and chanted, “Here we go, Benson!” Wilson busted out of the huddle and ran circles around it, chanting, “Here we go, Wilson!”

“You couldn't be mad at that kid,” Benson assistant football coach Jamar Dorsey said. “You just couldn't.”

But how many times did a coach observe little brother's antics, look at William and shake his head?

Big brother would grin: “He didn't get it from me.”

William was one of Benson's best football players, a wide receiver. But in June at football camp, he moved quickly to block a defender and his right knee buckled. Ligaments ripped.

He had envisioned college coaches coming to Benson to see him. Suddenly, his senior season was over before it began.

Green light.

Onto 52nd Street. William looks at his little brother, coughing in the passenger seat.

Wilson? He wasn't breathing.

“Stop playin'.”


Past Benson High. William pulls into a restaurant parking lot. Wilson?

He calls 911. Reclines his little brother in the seat.

Ambulance shows up. Takes Wilson away.

William calls his aunt, his friend, his sister, his youth minister.

He picks up Mom. Hurries to the hospital.

Doctor comes out of the ER. Once. Twice. Heart rate not stable. Working on him.

Wait. Pray.

Then the doctor comes back. Sorry, we did everything we could.

Now William can't breathe. He punches a wall. How many people had showed up at the hospital? Fifty? A hundred? He tries to get away.

After midnight, he walks into the house and sees Wilson's kindergarten picture on the wall.

Into his room, where he sits on the bed. He looks across the hall into his brother's room.

It's dark.

It's light.

William hasn't slept, but the next morning he goes to school.

Lift your eyes, he tells himself. No one likes to look at a sad face.

But it's hard, especially when the football players are crying.

Two nights later, homecoming. He joins his team in the old gym.

He can't play because of the injury, but coaches named him captain anyway. And before each game, they leave the gym and give him the last motivational words before kickoff.

But this week ... are you sure, William?

Coaches hang at his side as 100 eyes focus on him.

We're young men. There's no time to waste. We have to go on. Be strong.

Benson recovers a fumble in the end zone in the final minutes and takes a 21-19 lead. The defense holds. They only have to run out the clock to win.

Time out.

William, wearing his green No. 12 jersey, limps onto the field. He steps behind center, takes the final snap and drops to his left knee.

His right knee still hurts.

He does not miss a practice. He does not miss a weight-room session. He tells coach he's healthy. He lies.

Football ends and basketball starts, then track. His knee still hurts.

At school, William walks the hallways and sees posters and T-shirts and buttons with his brother's name and face. Wilson's old locker is covered with cards.

At night, moods change fast. He walks into the house and hears Mom and sister Winona laughing. He changes clothes, comes back and they're crying, looking at photos.

Wilson's room is still Wilson's room. His TV, his clothes, his book bag, his shoes.

“It's hard to wake up and look across the hall.”

So he sleeps downstairs. First thing in the morning, he watches “SpongeBob.” Wake up happy, you'll have a good day, he says.

He disconnects his phone. Too many people asking the same questions: How are you doing?

I'm doing better, he says.

“That's the only answer I can come up with.”

He tries to open up. Tries to be goofy. Says random things to get a laugh. Fill a room with sound and it doesn't feel quite so dark. Still, he's not sure if friends laugh because he's funny or because he's lame. Wilson never had to wonder.

“I can't do what he does.”

Monday night, he'll dress in green cap and gown, walk across a stage and accept a diploma, becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school.

But first, something even bigger.

Running hurdles is an exercise in rhythm, like dancing. One bad step, you lose stride. Steady speed is the priority.

When William hits hurdle No. 5 and nearly falls, he squanders momentum.

“Recover!” a coach yells.

William swings his arms and chops his legs, his spikes splash against the track.

He clears hurdles 6 and 7. Coach perks up.

He's still building speed when he skims No. 8 and crosses the finish line. Coach has a feeling.

William has never qualified for state. He needs fourth place.

Ten minutes pass, maybe 15.

They wait through another race. Then the public-address voice talks about the weather the storm is rolling in.

William paces. I think you got fifth, his teammate says. More waiting. Finally, results on the loudspeaker:

Sixth place ... Tevin Dixon, Omaha Burke, 43.58 seconds.

Fifth place ... Trent Wagner, Norfolk, 42.99.

Fourth place ... William Peters, Omaha Benson, 42.88.

Eleven hundredths of a second. Less than the time it takes to complete a breath.

William lifts his head toward the dark clouds and whispers to a face he'd been talking to since the stoplight turned green on a beautiful September night.

“We made it.”

The King and his Children

(Published December 2004)

ST. DENIS, France -- "King," as the kids call him, sits at a sidewalk cafe in the shadow of a 12th century basilica on a sunny late-summer afternoon.

A new, white Nebraska basketball T-shirt hangs from black shoulders that have narrowed considerably since he last dunked in the Coliseum.
Since he left Lincoln and the winter winds of the North American heartland.
Since he said goodbye to the rural Texas woman to whom he had made a solemn promise.

Down the cobblestone from where he sits, a large woman in a purple dashiki buys bananas from Cameroon.
A Moroccan waiter serves steaming platters of couscous. Everywhere, men in white meander to the mosque, their long cotton robes revealing the depths of their devotion from a block away.

It's been two years and a lifetime of violence since the kids in this Paris suburb began acting peculiar around him. Finally, an 8-year-old Algerian boy confronted him on the playground with a simple syllogism:
Mom and Dad say all Americans hate us. You're American, Leroy. Why do you hate us?

"Ahhh, that's just politics, man. You can't mix politics with friendship."

Leroy Chalk, who once snatched cotton in an east Texas hamlet and record-breaking rebounds off Husker backboards, folds his 6-foot-9 frame, extends his meathook hands, snatching the boy like an errant jumpshot.

"I love you."

Leroy Chalk, who grew up dreaming about the Celtics and the Lakers, spent a lifetime using basketball as a vehicle to get to places he'd never been.
To Nebraska, where he quickly became a crowd favorite.
To Europe, where he played professionally in Belgium and France for 17 years.
To St. Denis, and the kids -- children of poor Muslim immigrants from their North African homeland.

Leroy Chalk might have moved back home but for that summer night 25 years ago when he lost the one whom he owed everything.
He still thinks about her when he teaches preschoolers English -- ball, red, car, bear. When he teaches his basketball teams the bounce pass and the pick and roll. When he walks onto a playground, and his eyes meet an 8-year-old boy's, and he smiles.

"What I remember is everyone loved Leroy, no matter where he went," said Cliff Moller, a teammate for four years at NU who now lives in Alexandria, La. "He has the personality where he can fit in anywhere."

He drives under the public housing projects that soar 13 stories into the blue, past one of the schools where he teaches physical education.
Red light.
There was a drive-by shooting a year ago at this restaurant on the corner. Cops don't even bother with the drug dealers and thieves anymore. When a camera crew wants to shoot a documentary, they call in Leroy to keep the peace.

He pounds his fist against the steering wheel, once, twice, thrice. Beep, beep, beep.

"Hey!" he shouts at five boys on the corner. They wave.

He came 13 years ago to St. Denis, a communist, predominantly Muslim community. He wanted to start a professional basketball franchise.
The communists didn't go for it. Didn't want to privilege one kid over the next. So he got a job with the schools. His mother always valued teaching above all else.

He walks inside the school, past a newspaper photo of Mike Tyson pasted to the window. Into a gymnasium. It's Friday afternoon. Girls run and scream and throw balls into soccer nets.

How many hours of his 55 years has he spent in gyms like these? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

Glenn Potter, a former Nebraska basketball assistant who now coaches at Brigham Young-Hawaii, remembers the gym in Big Sandy, Texas. A rickety old building that creaked when Chalk stamped his size 16s on the floor. When he dunked.
If Big Sandy scored 50 points on that floor, Leroy had 30.

One game his white teammates stopped passing him the ball. Once, the football team went out to eat and the restaurant owner told the black kids they'd have to sit in the back.

He grew up the only boy in the house, playing dolls with his four sisters. His father drove an oil pipe truck through Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi and came home only on weekends. Leroy wondered where he'd been.

He always told mom he was going to get out.
When a cousin died in Houston, Leroy, who was in grade school, wanted to go to the funeral. He wasn't that close to the cousin; he just wanted to see the big city. He wrote down the name of every town they drove through on that 220-mile journey.

Henderson . . . Lufkin . . . Livingston . . . Kingwood.

Leroy was in high school when his dad got sick with tuberculosis and had to quit trucking. The boy got a job at a dairy farm. He milked cows before school and after.
Sports remained his outlet, though. She used to yell at him when he'd play football with his sisters and go Butkus on them.

Coach Potter showed up at a track meet in the spring of '67, Leroy's senior season, and watched the tallest boy on the field throw the shot and run the 800. He went to the old gym and watched him jump and run and dunk. His arms hung to his kneecaps.

When Potter pulled up to the farmhouse seven miles outside Big Sandy in his fancy rental car, Leroy's mom fed him fried chicken, black-eyed peas and cornbread.
She begged Leroy to stay close to home, then relented. He headed to Nebraska.

Wichita . . . Concordia . . . Hebron . . . York.

At Nebraska, Chalk almost didn't make it his freshman year. And not because the weather was "so cold it hurt." The school work hurt more. He stuck with it, though.
If he quit, he would've wasted all she'd done for him.

Flossie Mae Hayes grew up in rural Texas and dropped out of high school to get married. She had five kids in nine years and expected them to get A's. She dreamed they'd all go to college.

"I didn't care about no school; I was going to the pros," Chalk says.

After her husband got sick, she left home at 4 a.m. every day to clean the town doctor's house. On Christmas morning, she'd cook dinner at home, drive to Doc's house, cook, clean, then come back home in time for presents.
She always made certain Leroy had a good pair of basketball shoes. Cost half a month's wages.

She drove to Lincoln just once to see him play. It was during his sophomore year. He begged Coach to put him in.

"You wouldn't see Leroy outside practice without two or three people at his side. They just wanted to be in his presence," Moller said.
"He had a little crew, what they'd call a posse nowadays, white people from Nebraska that just sought him out. They drew some sort of energy from him."

He picks up a rubber ball, lumbers up to a girl half his height and throws it into the net. He smiles. Pats her on the head. In one of his classes, he's got 24 kids from 14 countries. And none see why that's an issue.
A Chinese boy doesn't look at a Tunisian girl and think about 9/11. A Portuguese girl doesn't look at a Jewish boy and think about Israel.

But Chalk can't control what happens when they get home. Still, he sees change.

Ten years ago, these Muslim girls wouldn't be wearing shorts. They wouldn't be playing sports in an after-school program. It's a male-dominated society, and girls in St. Denis get raped and abused for leaving their veils in the dresser drawer.

"That's like going outside with no clothes on; it's a big deal," Chalk says.

But because of the school programs that Chalk helps coordinate, his boss, a Muslim man from the Ivory Coast, says the girls don't view westernization as evil. Then there are those in school who said 9/11 wasn't, either.

The ideas that America professes aren't welcome in the homes of many of Chalk's students. Democracy?
"They don't want no democracy," he says. Oppression of women? "Women accept it; it doesn't bother them. It just bothers people in the West."

He arrives at school at 10 a.m. on weekdays and the kids stop recess to say "Bonjour." Little girls want to give him a kiss. The boys want to hold his hand.

As they run off to play, Chalk asks himself the question: Where will they be in 10 years? Will some be suicide bombers? Will they be peaceful? Will they hate America and the West that tries to conform them to a set of values different from those they hear at home?
He's seen kids he considered friends suddenly change.

"They're wearing the long dress-looking things and the thing on their heads. I saw two or three the other day I knew.

"As far as me working with the kids, they might be terrorists, too. But it's hard for me to see kids like that. You can't classify people on who's good and who's bad. You can't look at people and say, 'I hate all Arabs.' You know? There's a lot of good ones, too. I don't think I hate any of 'em.

"They're just kids as far as I'm concerned."

He's in a different gym now, this time barking orders in French to his high school basketball team. se depecher, un, deux, trois. The slow Southern drawl remains. He gives his whistle a quick blow. Tweet.

The kids circle and sit at his feet on a rubber floor. Most won't play after Chalk is finished with them. Not the kid in the McGrady jersey. Not the one in the Webber jersey and Nike shoes and baggy shorts.
But they know where Chalk has been.

They know about the Celtics, the franchise that drafted Leroy in 1971 after he grabbed a school-record 782 rebounds in three seasons at Nebraska -- a record Venson Hamilton finally broke in 1999.
Chalk says he would've scored more points, but the NCAA outlawed dunking before his freshman year.

"I worked on so much dunk material. Man, I had so much, Woooo. I would dunk on my mother if she got in the way. And I get to school and we couldn't even dunk. So I think that's what really kept me out of the pros.
"You just try to finger roll; guys were throwing that stuff back into the stands, you know?"

After Boston cut him in '71, Chalk signed with a Belgian team in '72.

Brussels . . . Seneffe . . . Cambrai . . . Paris.

He was MVP of his league in '74, often compiling 30 points and 30 rebounds a night.

"I will never forget, one game in the European Cup, I had the ball, like three seconds left, in the corner, fake, this guy gives me baseline, and I come under the thing and I throw it, Bam, a really hard dunk like that, you know?
"And the referee said I stepped out of bounds. And we lose the game."

Headline the next morning: The King lost the crown and the victory.

He didn't realize until he came to Europe that his name in French, Le Roi, means "The King." He laughs when he hears the kids say it.
Chalk signed with a French team in '77, retired in '90, and has lived in Paris ever since.

He misses American basketball -- the Husker T-shirt was a gift from American friends, as were three boxes of Hamburger Helper he requested. He misses his sisters in Texas.
But the allure of Paris, a girlfriend and an 18-year-old daughter make it hard to leave.

Besides, home wouldn't be the same. Hadn't been since he came back that summer of '79.

Mom had been sick the year before but was doing well now. One June day, he spent the whole afternoon with her.
They drove 20 miles to Tyler in her new black Ford LTD. They shopped. They talked about the sisters, all of whom have graduated from college -- three went on to be teachers. Instead of going out with buddies, he took her to church.

"We had a lovely day."

They came home that night and she went to bed. See you in the mornin'. He sat down in front of the TV.
Fifteen minutes passed.
He heard Dad holler from the bedroom. He ran to her side. Tried to bring her back. She was 54.

Seven summers before, he had returned to Nebraska after a year of pro ball to finish his degree in political science and history.

"My mother, that was my motivation. I could not fail her. I always wanted her to be so proud of me."

He's in a grade school now, setting up a table and chairs built for 6-year-olds, not 6-9 power forwards.
Today is registration day for English classes. He'll teach simple words and phrases -- tomato, airplane, car, water.

A 4-year-old girl of Eastern European parents walks to the table wearing a long white dress and red glasses.
She turns with curious brown eyes to her new teacher, of different skin and size and accent. Her long brown hair hangs over her cheeks.

He swivels around in the chair. Their eyes meet.

"How are you? How are you? What's your name?"

He wraps his arm around her and plants his lips on her forehead.

The girl stares for a moment at the large black man from Texas with the gray whiskers. She doesn't understand, but she smiles back.

The Underdogs

(Published May 2005)

LINCOLN - Cowhide collides with leather on a humid summer night.

The man with the slumping left shoulder slips his right hand into a baseball glove he's worn since 1972, some 20 years ago. He squeezes his fingers at the precise moment - pop. He slides the leather off. He grabs the ball and throws it with the same right hand - pop. That's the way he learned.

The boy, barely a grade schooler, lifts his left leg. His right arm reaches back. He summons his strength. He uncoils. He gives back. That's the way he'll learn.

Pop. . . pop. Back and forth.

The two will practice after school like this for hours. They'll play in their Lincoln front yard on days when most kids don't. No mother or wife will call them for dinner. No family vacations or shopping sprees will interrupt.

The man with the damaged limbs and severed lineage will save every hat, every jersey, every glove the boy will ever wear en route to becoming Nebraska's ace. He'll tell the boy about children's hospitals and foster homes, about prison cells and broken friendships, about fighting and faith.

He'll promise to pick the boy up when he falls. And the boy will fall.

Pop. . . pop. Back and forth.

The man had been long ago abandoned, beaten, destined to end up next to his childhood friends in a world of barbed wire and steel bars. Forty years later, he'll sit atop a flood of red, pumping his fist as the fruit of his perseverance rings up another strikeout.

The boy will be long forgotten, defeated, destined to end up in some junior college bullpen in a world of hanging curves and empty bleachers. Two years later, he'll jog to a dirt hill on national TV and make the nation's No. 1 team look like Little Leaguers.

Just a ball and two gloves. Just a father and a son. Just Harlan and Joba Chamberlain.

Pop. . . pop. Back and forth.

"Hey Mr. Chamberlain," shouts an event staffer in a yellow coat. "Is he ready?"

"Yeah, he's ready."

"Arm feels good?"

"That's what he told me."

A gusting south wind blows against 53-year-old Harlan Chamberlain's tan skin. It's a Friday night in May, and that means one thing: His boy is pitching.

The 19-year-old with the mitt-stinging fastball and knee-buckling curveball has emerged from obscurity in 2005 as Nebraska's lead arm. He was once a pudgy ballboy, and a year ago, he was getting shelled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Now he's putting up numbers that compare with college baseball's finest. This kid may earn millions someday.

But behind each win, each award, each standing ovation, there's a crippled, orphaned American Indian single dad who showed Joba Chamberlain the way.
Summer, 1952.

Paranoia invades the Winnebago Indian Reservation, located 90 miles north of Omaha, as a viral epidemic sweeps across the nation. More than 57,000 cases are reported in one summer.

That June, a 9-month-old named Harlan met a friend of the family who had unknowingly contracted the disease, the same one for which Jonas Salk would reveal a vaccine in 1955. Harlan soon got sick. The doctor's diagnosis: polio.

But the reservation didn't have medical services to treat polio. The Chamberlains barely had money for electricity, let alone hospital care. In 1957, Harlan permanently moved away from his three sisters and three brothers.

He'd spend six years, five months and 11 days in a Lincoln children's hospital. He'd bounce around five foster homes.

Polio wrecked the left side of Harlan's body. He would never walk without limp. Never hear out of his left ear. His condition would degenerate.

Once, knowing his left leg was shorter than the right, doctors broke the longer one to slow its growth.

"They wanted to make you look as normal as possible," Harlan says. "Well, what's normal? Normal is different in every person's eyes."

Harlan Chamberlain weaves through a crowd on his motorized scooter. He wears black-rimmed glasses, a gray T-shirt embroidered with a white "44" and a red collared shirt, buttoned only once at the bottom. A red hat stitched with a white "N" covers black hair turning gray.

"Humphrey," the scooter, transports him to the pass gate, where he hugs once-estranged brothers and sisters who have come to watch Joba.

A white-haired woman approaches: "That little boy used to be the ballboy at Northeast - my gosh!"

That little boy, at 4 years old, used to watch entire baseball games on TV, tossing a ball into his glove over and over. Joba wanted to be a big leaguer.

"I've heard a lot of kids say what they were going to do, but I've never seen anybody so sure," said neighbor Jennie Oliver.

Harlan would sit in a folding chair outside their 32nd Street house, playing catch with his son.

Sometimes, they invited the neighborhood kids and moved the game across the street to Sacred Heart School. Harlan drove from house to house, recruiting.

"Baseball, tonight," he'd shout. "Baseball, tonight."

Neighbors remember 15 or 20 showing up. Harlan provided the bats and bases and gloves. He umpired. He coached. Hours later, by the time the moon had taken the sun's place, kids were asking for one more inning.

"Baseball and softball was our life," says sister Tasha, four years Joba's elder. "That's all we did. That's how we got by."

During the winter, Joba chased basketballs for Lincoln Northeast's four state championship teams. He couldn't travel on the bus to road games, so Harlan drove him. They missed three games in six years.

Baseball, though, remained their passion. Some nights, Joba and Tasha played in the street while Dad sat, instructing them. He'd get upset when they struggled; he couldn't walk out to show them.

He pushed for one more try when the boy muffed a ground ball and threw his glove, when Joba just wanted to watch TV.

Harlan told the boy how much he'd give to run to the end of the block. To chase him down a pop fly. Don't you know what you've got, son?

"There were several points," Tasha says, "when it was like, my goodness, can you just leave me alone? Can you just let us play for fun?"

"He was really insistent that we were going to accomplish some things he couldn't."


June 30, 1965, 3:15 p.m.

Harlan Chamberlain moved to Whitehall, a home for wards of the state in northeast Lincoln, a "melting pot of misfits," said Mark Shelby, Chamberlain's best friend growing up, who also had polio.

The public looked at Whitehall as a place of salvation for orphaned kids, said Rod Orduna, Chamberlain's childhood friend. Orduna remembers "going through hell." Adult supervision was limited in the youth cottages, which housed 20 to 30.

"You never knew what the next day would bring," Harlan says. "It brought horror."

Harlan was teased or beaten up every day. Two boys, in particular, used to steal from him. They hit him, then ran. The boy with the limp couldn't chase them. They came into his room at night and punched him.

One night Harlan planned to run away. He packed what he had. An older friend who played football at Lincoln Northeast stopped him.

"You can't run forever, Harlan," he said. "At some point, you've got to fight back."

One day, Harlan followed one of the bullies to the bathroom, where there was nowhere to run. He cornered him in the stall. He fought. Then he beat up the other one. They never bothered him again. Nor did anyone else.

Chamberlain attended Northeast. In 1970, he left Whitehall. He farmed for a while, then rented a trailer with Mark Shelby on North 20th Street.

The two passed the time in bars playing foosball. But Shelby always wanted to party when Harlan wanted to go home. Soon Shelby was trying drugs.

"I didn't want anything to do with it," Harlan says.

The buddies parted ways in 1972. Three years later, Chamberlain took a job at the Nebraska State Penitentiary as a counselor. He quickly empathized with the men on the other side of the bars.

"I was no better than them," says Harlan, whose first roommate at Whitehall wound up in the penitentiary for murder. "The only difference was I could walk out of there at 4:30. Given certain situations, I would be there just like they were."

A few years later, limping through the maximum security halls, Harlan spotted a familiar face: Mark Shelby. Shelby has been incarcerated off and on for the past 25 years. He'll be in prison at least another 10.

"I regret the choices I made," Shelby says softly from the state pen. "I just wish, maybe, I should've been more like (Harlan) in some situations."


Harlan motors to his perch overlooking the field. He sips watered-down iced tea. He chews Wintergreen Extra. He extends his right leg, the one doctors broke - there's still a steel rod inside. He's had 15 surgeries but needs a new left hip. He needs a new right knee.

A sports agent introduces himself, says he's been watching Joba.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore pitcher takes the mound minutes later. He unleashes a 90-plus mph fastball for strike one. Minutes later, he fans a Missouri Tiger on full count.

"That was a nasty curveball," Harlan says.

That wasn't the stuff Bill Fagler saw at Lincoln Northeast baseball tryouts.

Fagler, the former Northeast coach, remembers a kid maybe 5-foot-8 who had to weigh 250 pounds as a freshman. Joba couldn't excel at that size. He'd always been better than his peers, but he was sitting the bench. He wondered if this game was really for him.

When Joba's hitting slumped, Harlan flipped him ball after ball, watching for hours as the boy smacked them into a net.

"He was always like, you're going to be one of the best," Joba said. "I'm like, Dad, get out of here with that, you know? Dad, reality - it's not going to happen."

The boy didn't crack Northeast's pitching rotation until his senior year - he played mostly first base and catcher growing up. He didn't attract college coaches.

"I was very frustrated when he graduated," Fagler said. "I could hardly get anybody to even take a look at him."

That summer, Fagler would see Joba running the streets of northeast Lincoln during the heat of the day. That August, Joba attended a Nebraska baseball camp. Pitching coach Rob Childress recommended the junior college path. That night, University of Nebraska at Kearney coach Damon Day called and offered Joba a scholarship.

The pitcher couldn't get into school until January. He maintained baseball fields in Lincoln that fall. He hung out with Dad. Second semester came and Joba left. It was a Friday night.

"For three weeks, I was kind of lost," Harlan says. "I'd never been without him."


Justin Chamberlain, nicknamed "Joba" as a baby, was a year old when his father and mother split up. He was 3 when Harlan obtained full custody.

Their cramped house had two bedrooms. Tasha got one. Joba slept with Dad in the other. On Sundays, the two wrestled as they watched Hulk Hogan on TV. They watched movies at night; Joba curled up next to Harlan in his recliner, which no one sat in without Dad's permission.

Harlan bought the scooter in 1991 after he tripped over a sidewalk crack and fell. His mobility inside the house was limited - Humphrey couldn't get up the porch steps. Harlan didn't go downstairs for 10 years.

Joba took take care of laundry. He mowed the yard and took out the trash. He unloaded the scooter from the family van.

"He don't do dishes, though," Harlan says.

Dad cooked from the living room, setting the frying pan or electric skillet on the coffee table. Joba ran and grabbed a stick of butter when needed. One time a friend brought over two five-pound bags of porkchops. Harlan prepared a whole bag from his recliner.

"My kids love porkchops. We were in hog heaven the rest of the night."

Mom was never around - still isn't. Money was never to spare - still isn't. Joba remembers picking out new clothes at thrift stores. The only vacations were baseball tournaments. When Christmas came, when the kids needed clothes for the new school year, Harlan pawned off his possessions.

"Remember when bomber jackets were cool?" Joba says. "Oh, me and Tasha had to have one. We begged Dad and we finally got one."

Harlan and Joba moved a few blocks north in 2001. Tasha, who moved out a year before, remembers cleaning out the old house. Where's all your stuff, she asked Dad. He didn't have much left.

"I think he felt like a failure," Tasha said. "Even the poor kids in the neighborhood had some of the coolest stuff and we didn't."

Job stress, financial worries and raising a teenage daughter without a motherly influence took its toll on Harlan's aching body. His doctor told him his post-polio syndrome, which deteriorates his bones slowly, would only escalate. He retired from the state pen in 2001.

Harlan took a job staffing Husker events. He substitute teaches for Lincoln Public Schools. He lives by himself. He rides the scooter and pushes his snowblower in the winter until his driveway is clear. He grabs items off the kitchen's top shelf. He buttons shirts with one hand.

"When you learned to swim, you learned with two arms and two legs, right? I learned with one arm and one leg. But I can still swim.

"I don't know what it's like not to be handicapped. By virtue, I don't know what it's like to be handicapped."

He called Roper Elementary Wednesday and said he wouldn't be in class the next day; Joba's pitching. He loaded Humphrey and took off for the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City.

"He had a God-given talent for playing baseball," Harlan says. "If there was anything I could do to enhance that, to better that, I was going to. Nothing was going to restrict me from being there, for him and with him."


The kids at the grocery store used to stare. Joba used to stare back: "Take a picture; it lasts longer," he'd say. Joba grew up around wheelchairs; several family friends were disabled.

"They do everything you do. That's the way it's always been. That's the way I'll teach my kids. Your grandpa's in a scooter. He's still your grandpa.

"If I could be half the man he is, I would take that and run with it."

This past winter at a Nebraska basketball game, the baseball team walked onto the court during a timeout rolling a bin of plastic balls. Most Nebraska teams get the opportunity to distribute the souvenirs at one game or another, but these were baseball players - fans were going to find out how far these little balls could fly.

So Mike Anderson's troops take the floor. They start launching balls into the nosebleeds.

Joba grabs ammunition. He retreats to the corner of the floor. He looks up to the handicapped section. He flips a few balls to people in wheelchairs. He smiles and walks away.

Joba's freshman season at UNK ended with a 3-7 record. Still, the kid thought he was good enough for Nebraska. He joined the Huskers last fall. He turned weight into muscle. He discovered useful off-speed pitches. He earned a starting role.

In February, he won national player of the week after striking out 15 batters in one game. On April 8 against Texas, he allowed one earned run in nine innings on ESPN. He hit 98 mph on the radar twice in the ninth. He couldn't touch 88 two years ago.

"I've tried to show him that if you're passionate about something, nothing is insurmountable," Harlan says.

It's Sunday afternoon, Mother's Day. Harlan acts as gatekeeper to the upper deck, checking tickets, stamping hands. He can't see the field but hears the crowd's roars.

The mother of a Lincoln Northeast girl sees Harlan next to the stairwell. How 'bout that boy of yours, she says.

Harlan reaches into a plastic grocery sack. He pulls out a baseball. He shows her the scribble between the seams. Her eyebrows jump. Is that Joba's signature?

Harlan doesn't smile, simply placing the ball in her hand. She leans over Humphrey's handle bars and kisses Harlan on the cheek. She vows to put the ball on her desk. She walks away.

A few seconds pass, a few moments of silence. A tear forms in his right eye. It races down his cheek. He wipes it away.

"That people will feel that way about him, that's something you never get over."

The crowd roars. He folds his hands and stares ahead at nothing.

OK, we need to take a picture, guys - it lasts longer.

We need you, Joba, to get down on a knee next to your dad. Smile or don't smile, your choice.

Father and son converge beyond the reach of a shade tree in their backyard. Their whiskers almost touch.
Harlan has an idea. He puckers his lips. He turns and tries to kiss Joba on the cheek. The boy jumps away.

"Dad, cut it out. What are you doing?"

A moment later, the boy licks his finger and sticks it in Dad's ear.


Joba leans in, tilts his head: "Your head's already big enough for the both of us," he says. "I don't want to be cheek to cheek with you."

They'll go on like this the whole photo shoot. They could go on like this all night.

The day always finishes the same, though. On the phone or across the hallway, no matter. The routine started a few years ago when there was too much to say. They condensed their thoughts.

"If I don't say it, he reminds me," Harlan says. "He'll say: I didn't hear it; you forgot."

Every night, before the last lightswitch flips, before the future is pondered, before the past is laid to rest, before blessings are counted:

I love you.


Sweet Dreams.

Don't forget your prayers.

The Pilot

(Published April 2010)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The teacher rummages through Room 105, searching for Ndamukong Suh.

He looks in his file cabinet. No, not here. In his desk. No, not here. In his closet full of boxes.

Ah ha! A VHS tape.

Room 105 lies at the end of a massive hallway inside Portland's largest high school, Ulysses S. Grant.

Outside, the neighborhood is green and tidy, cozy as a Sunday morning cappuccino. Tudors, bungalows and foursquares tightly line the shaded streets, each featuring wood floors and colorful landscaping.

You can't find a home younger than 70 years old. You can't find two bathrooms and a remodeled kitchen for less than half a million bucks.

The neighborhood focal point, Grant High, is two stories of orange brick beneath towering conifers.

Inside, black-and-white photos adorn the walls — every varsity team dating back to 1924, when all the faces were white.

Ndamukong Suh walked these halls for four years. Now he's four days from selection in the NFL Draft.

His fate didn't always seem so clear, Karry Cameron says. You'll see on this video.

Mr. Cameron walks briskly to his VCR. He wears a blue suit, red tie and buzzed hair. He enunciates every syllable and speaks with the certainty of a veteran coach — football, wrestling, track and field.

He could pass for a CEO in downtown Portland. Instead, he's been at Grant since 1984. Half that time, he taught “bridge,” a study skills class designed to prepare freshmen for the rigors of high school. Three of every four students eventually made honor roll.

In 2001, a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken boy — half Cameroonian, half Jamaican — walked into Room 105 and found a seat at the second desk against the wall.

Mr. Cameron emphasized preparation and organization. Bring your bookbag every day. Take notes.

“I was pretty much a drill sergeant,” he says.

Nine months later, the boy fulfilled the class's final requirement: an on-camera exit interview. Mr. Cameron inserts the tape.

“It may take some time to find it on this old-school VCR,” Cameron says.

He presses fast forward, then rewind, zipping through anonymous adolescents, seeking a face his students know from ESPN.

While Mr. Cameron searches, let him tell a story about Suh's first month here.

Grant High is home to 1,600 students. It's one of Oregon's scholastic gems, a magnet for racial and economic diversity. The roll call of alumni includes politicians and pro athletes, an astronaut and a Hollywood actress.

“Mr. Holland's Opus” was filmed here. Beverly Clearly grew up here; her “Ramona Quimby” stories take place under the evergreens of Grant Park, which adjoins the school property.

Ndamukong Suh — Mr. Cameron likes to say his full name — came to Grant not from one of the prestigious old homes nearby, but from a mile west.

A week of classes passed and Suh still hadn't attended a football practice. Who cares, right? Well, Mr. Cameron happens to coach freshman football.

You have to come out and play for me, the teacher told Suh.

Well, Suh said, you'll have to talk to my mom.

“So I give Mom a call,” Cameron said. “‘Mom, would you consider allowing this young man to play football for me? He'd be in good hands.'

“And Mom says, ‘No. My son will not play football until he proves he can handle high school academics. Unless he is on honor roll, he is not going to play any sports.'
“Mom would not budge. What a strong, strong woman.”

Suh didn't quite make the honor roll first quarter and he never did play freshman football. But he soon hit the academic benchmark — and, sophomore year, Mom finally let him wear shoulder pads.

“She was worried about her baby getting injured,” Cameron said.

OK, OK. Here it is. Mr. Cameron stops the tape.

Suh's exit interview. June 2002.

Mr. Cameron gave the bridge students some bases to cover: What is your name? What did you learn this year? What are you going to do better? And, of course, what does your future hold?

The boy's cheeks are full, his voice a little higher than you know it now. His T-shirt fits loosely. His eyes spend more time on the ceiling than the camera. His monologue lasts 52 seconds.

“My name is Ndamukong Suh. ... Freshman year has gone by fast.”

Teachers at Grant remember a good listener and a warm smile, but a kid too shy to say much.

Suh couldn't shield his competitiveness, though. A classmate saw it in PE, when Suh got into a tussle with a peer.

“It's like that quote by Roosevelt: Speak softly and carry a big stick,” said Beau Cumming, a 2005 Grant graduate. “That personifies him.”

A head coach saw it when he walked into the weight room one Friday afternoon before a football game and found Suh alone, pumping iron.

An offensive coordinator saw it when he called timeouts and listened to his star lineman make requests. “Let me pull,” Suh said.

So the Grant Generals ran power running plays behind Suh, all the way to their first playoff win in a generation.

Coaches all over school lobbied Suh to join their team. Mr. Cameron, the wrestling coach, tried to get Suh into a singlet — “He would've been a state champion wrestler.”

Suh preferred basketball.

“He reminded me of Charles Barkley,” Cameron said. “He knew how to use his body. He didn't outleap everyone, but he grabbed every rebound.”

As a junior, Suh went out for track and field for the first time and qualified for the state meet in the shot put. Senior year, he won gold with a throw of 61 feet.

By 2005, every million-dollar college coach in America knew his name. He chose Nebraska. In the summers, he came home to help with high school football camps. Grant athletes watched the 300-pounder sprint on the track. Wow. They thought big guys stuck to the weight room.

The interview continues: “Something that I did well was get good grades. Something that I need to improve on would have to be” — Suh pauses — “grades.”

And next year? What are you going to do next year?

“I'm going to get good grades next year as a sophomore.”

Coaches and teachers cheered him at Nebraska, but it wasn't until last fall that he became a celebrity to ordinary Grant students. They watched him wreck Missouri's offense (and Blaine Gabbert's ankle). Watched him tear apart Texas (and Colt McCoy's Heisman hopes). Heard his mom mention Grant High on ESPN.

Each Monday, smiles rippled down that 150-yard-long hallway: Did you see what Suh did this weekend?

Then in January, Suh came home. He sought out the security guard and hugged her — he always hugs Marci. He made his way to the center of the hallway.

“Next thing you know,” said Diallo Lewis, head football coach, “kids were coming out with hall passes. ‘I gotta go to the bathroom. I gotta go to my locker.' Then coming up to him, ‘Hey, can I have your autograph? Can I get a picture?'”

Suh's exit interview is quickly coming to a close. Just one more bridge to cross, one more question and you're on your way to 10th grade, Ndamukong: What will you be when you're 24?

This Thursday night, April 2010 in New York City, 3,000 miles from Grant High and the lush green neighborhoods of Portland, 23-year-old Ndamukong Suh will hear the NFL commissioner call his name. He'll saunter to the stage at Radio City Music Hall and take one more step toward wealth and glory.

What will you be when you're 24?

That day, June 2002 in Mr. Cameron's Room 105, Suh didn't hesitate. He knew the answer.

“When I'm 24 years old, I'm going to be a pilot.

“Thank you.”